Istanbul feels like a city on the verge of cracking into the A-list of tourist destinations in Europe/Middle East. I was lucky enough to have a week to check out whether the city lives up to the hype. It did, and I learned quite a bit. Here are some high level thoughts on Turkey followed by a more touristy blow by blow of the trip.
- Turkey is a modern, secular republic that in theory embraces freedom of religion. Yet its population is 99.8% Muslim, its land is home to a tremendous amount of religious history, schools teach only Islam in religion class, and a call to prayer in Arabic that blankets the city five times a day serves as a reminder of the religiosity of the place.
- It’s one of the world’s oldest civilizations. America seems so very, very young when compared to much of the world, but especially in places like the former Ottoman Empire. Yet, Istanbul as a city feels modern, hip, energetic. It’s that guidebook cliche of a city “blending old and new”—a cliche that stands true for Istanbul.
- Given its long history, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the country’s far-reaching cultural and commercial exports. Think of the number of words before which the preface “Turkish” adds unique meaning: coffee, towels, desserts, carpets, baths.
- Istanbul seemed eminently livable. The Turkish people are quite friendly and helpful, the city struggles with traffic but taxis and public transit seemed ample, there’s obviously a lot of physically beauty to take in throughout the city, and the food is solid. (There’s virtually no ethnic food in Turkey, so it’s solid Turkish cuisine.) Istanbul’s geographic location and full service airport means it’s easy to go anywhere in Europe or the Middle East. The government has announced it intends to build the world’s largest airport outside the city. All this to say: to live in Istanbul for a spell of time would be a lot of fun for anyone.
- This past week was the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. It’s unfortunate that the Armenian issue captures so many headlines in the U.S. media when the topic is Turkey, given how much else is going on the country. But it’s high time for Turkey to acknowledge the issue so everyone can move forward.
- I like to say that entrepreneurship is everywhere. “Everywhere” includes Turkey — very much so. There are a few good VCs in Istanbul who are backing many bright, ambitious Turkish internet entrepreneurs who are creating meaningful companies. Despite the fact that today’s Turkish internet entrepreneurs seem focused on the local domestic market, I could imagine the country eventually becoming a launch pad for globally ambitious startups given Turkey’s quasi-European, quasi-Middle East status.
- Cultural quirks. I’m a sucker for small cultural quirks that remind us of just how arbitrary our own customs are. I often notice these quirks in restaurants. In Korean mid-tier to low end restaurants, for example, I love how a pitcher of water is often kept near the front and you can go and re-fill your water cup as much as you want. In Turkey, the restaurant quirk was the moist toilette: each restaurants has their own branded toilettes and you get one with almost every bill.
From a tourism perspective, there’s so much to see and do in Istanbul.
To start, it’s pretty easy to get there. Turkish Airlines now serves a non-stop from San Francisco (in addition to LA, Boston, Washington, Houston, Chicago, and New York) and introduced passengers to Turkey from the moment we took off. For example, the flight attendants spoke minimal English — just like most people in Turkey! — and moist toilettes were included in every meal.
Upon arrival, there are a few blockbuster tourist attractions that everyone does on their first jet-lagged day: head to the Sultanahmet district and visit the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The history behind the Hagia Sophia is singular; it’s striking to see both Christian and Islamic iconography in the same building, as it served as both a church and a mosque at different points in history before recently being converted into a museum. The Blue Mosque was massive and beautiful. Every time I step in one of these buildings I behold the power of religion: religious passion has compelled so many thousands of people in so many parts of the world to labor for so many years on end in order to build enormous, architecturally stunning monuments to their gods.
Side note: One can’t help but notice the sexism when you enter a mosque: women must put on headscarves and they are not to pray in the main praying area, which in the case of Blue Mosque holds 3,000 (!) people. Instead they must organize themselves in a small, off-to-the-side “women’s area.” When you examine the sexist story of creation and the present-day customs/rules of many religions (Christianity, Judaism, and most others I’m aware of) it’s not hard to understand the origins of sexism today.
There are plenty of cool things to do in Istanbul that aren’t at the front of the guidebook. Two highlights.
First, a hamam — a Turkish bath. The hamam near the Hagia Sophia is the most famous, most expensive, and oldest (created in 1556!) in Istanbul and for my money was very much worth it. In the men’s side of the building, I was led to a locker room where I changed into nothing but a Turkish towel. From there I walked through the beautiful marble building into a bath area where I was told to use a deep, gold colored dish, dunk the dish into a bin of hot water, and pour it over me. It was all quite elegant in fact, and with steam escaping from the marble under and enveloping me, I felt immediately relaxed. After 10 mins, my therapist showed up to conduct the scrub and massage. He said, “This is best hamam and I am a very good server. I will take good care of you.” With speed and forcefulness, he poured more water over me and then wrapped a loofah-like mitt around his hand and began scrubbing me all over. My back, my arm, my hand, my legs, my chest, my forehead. It was a massive skin exfoliation exercise. Then, he led me to a marble table and instructed me to lie on my stomach. From there, he poured lots of soapy water all over. Big soap suds expanded in size and rose up over my body, kind of like a bubble bath carpet rolling out over my back. He took his loofah mitt and scrubbed more skin. The hamam was physically intense. The scrub was thorough and at different intervals the therapist slapped me to indicate the close of one segment of the scrub. Although utterly relaxing and an amazing culture experience (in contrast to my Beijing massage some years ago), it’s not for the physically unfit and or for those men made easily uncomfortable.
Second, a food tour. I don’t know why I haven’t done a food tour before in all my travels. It was a highlight of Istanbul and an amazing way to get to know the city geographically, culturally, and even economically. Five of us and an expert tour guide from Taste of Two Continents went to 12 restaurants and street vendors and tasted traditional Turkish food, winding our way through back alleys and less trafficked areas of the Asian side of the city. It wasn’t high end foodie food — it was the food Turks actually eat at home and at restaurants. For breakfast, we bought a simit and a number of different local spreads. The guide explained that traditionally such an expansive spread of breakfast options was prepared by the woman of the house. As women have been integrated into the workforce, they don’t have the time to prepare such a breakfast, and so the “classic” Turkish breakfast is going the wayside of quicker on-the-go options. One example of appreciating economics and demography through food. While Turkish coffee is famous, it’s tea that actually dominates. The average Turk drinks four cups of tea a day (Chinese black tea) and you’ll see people drinking it at all hours of the day. For desserts, the baklava is as delicious as advertised. Their special blend of ice cream requires a fork and knife to eat. But it’s Tres Leches, Latin America style, which wins as the most popular dessert in Turkey right now for some reason.
After five nights in Istanbul, we headed to Cappadocia, the second most popular tourist destination in Turkey. About a 75 minute flight from Istanbul, it’s famous for a moon-like landscape, with huge rock formations jutting out of the ground that look like tall chimneys with “fairy” tops. Below the ground are vast underground cities, complete with rooms and tunnel networks that could hold up to 20,000 Christians who escaped underground they were persecuted by Muslim conquerers. We got unlucky with the weather and so weren’t able to hot air balloon — the most popular activity there — but hiking around the area, above and below ground, was still cool.
Bottom Line: Turkey is a great place to be a tourist — Istanbul is an awesome city. And increasingly, it’s an opportunity-rich place for technology entrepreneurship.